In December 2012, CoreAlign hosted its first practice circle taking up the question of “what is the role of gender in our movement?” In this blog, I share a few of my own reflections from this event. These are my thoughts and I hope that others who attended will post their thoughts in response to this blog.
I should start by announcing that I was raised a second-wave feminist. I was born in 1965 and the first record for which I knew every lyric to every song was Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” As a 2nd waver (the 1st wavers were the suffragists—the reference in Obama’s speech to Seneca Falls), I saw the world through the lens of a bright line difference between women and men. There were two sexes and power in society was unequally divided across that line. In my mind, the sex/gender system (articulated by Rubin in 1975) was the major organizing structure of oppression. I learned to hate pornography, male authority of any kind, and the subordination that came from being able to get pregnant. To me, the goal was to bring down the patriarchy and to free women from the bonds of motherhood. Luckily for me, college taught me about other intersecting forms of oppression and I came to understand that the patriarchy hurts men as much as women. I came to embrace both pregnancy and parenthood and to see them as benefits not liabilities. But gender, separate and distinct from the male/female pregnancy not-capable/ pregnancy capable dichotomy, still eluded my understanding. I have been trying to figure it out ever since.
So what did I learn from the practice circle? I learned that people in our movement are not sure what to do with the gender question. Rather than a simple male/female or masculine/feminine binary, gender is seen as fluid and situational. Everyone in the room thought about their own gender in much more complicated ways. Butler argues gender is performed and West and Zimmerman claimed we do gender. But gender was also embodied and real for the people in the room and their experiences in the world had much to do with how their gender was or was not understood. Because of this, the participants reiterated that gender has real world consequences that individuals do not control.
The group struggled with the desire for gender to be fluid and individually determined but also wanted recognition that there are organizing structures of power based on certain understandings of gender that aren’t so fluid. Women, defined by society as a static group of people that are not-men, are subject to policies that specifically limit the control they have over their bodies because those bodies can get pregnant. Many didn’t want to let go of seeing our struggle as part of a larger struggle for “women’s rights.” While most felt the frame “war on women” was exclusionary, they also recognized that the policies being adopted are targeted at a group society sees as “women.” It still matters to talk about sexism.
Despite the simplistic of the distinction for opponents of reproductive health, rights and justice, our work is challenged by wanting to adopt a more complex understanding of gender. While pregnancy is something that can only happen to bodies with uteri, not all people who occupy those bodies identify as “women.” In a very poignant discussion about where trans people fit in our movement, I was reminded that how we treat those on the margins, especially when those groups are small in numbers, speaks to the larger values we embody.
In a debate over whether to adopt gender-neutral language, the group pondered whether we lose more or gain more in making this shift. Ultimately what I took away was that our goals should be broad and inclusive—about all people’s sexual and reproductive lives—but that we should develop programs that have a level of specificity. We shouldn’t collapse oppression to being a “woman” and shouldn’t paint masculinity into a box either. We clearly have a lot of work to do to make this an inclusive movement but I believe recognizing that gender is bigger than male/female or masculine/feminine is a great place to start.